21 May 2012

Liberia: Ellen Appoints Ex-PUL Official Information Commission Chief

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has finally appointed the Commissioner of the country first ever Independent Information Commission in line with the Freedom of Information Law.

The President over the weekend appointed Cllr. Mark Bedor-Wla Freeman, Sr., a Liberian journalist and lawyer working with the UN Mission in Liberia, after a long vetting period.

The former Press Union of Liberia (PUL) president and vice president will have to be confirmed by the Liberian senate before he begins his official function of investigating complaints against media practitioners and public as prescribed in the FOI law.

Cllr. Freeman was among the president's lattes appointment of official in government including Mr. Brahima Kaba as Ambassador, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Mr. Levi Banney as Assistant Minister for Legal Affairs, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Mr. Vincent B. Smith as Assistant Minister for Administration, Ministry of Public Works.

The Information Commissioner is completely independent of the Government in the performance of his/her functions. This independence is underpinned by the Freedom of Information Acts.

Among others, the main functions of the Commissioner include reviewing (on application) decisions of public bodies in relation to FOI requests and where necessary, making binding, new decisions; reviewing the operation of the Freedom of Information Acts to ensure that public bodies comply with the provisions of the legislation; and fostering of an attitude of openness among public bodies by encouraging the voluntary publication of information above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Acts.

PUL President Peter Quaqua early this month noted that the Union was pleased with the news that Government was about to appoint the Commissioner. "One of the most important supporting measures towards strengthening the media in Liberia has been the passage of the freedom of information law in 2010," Mr. Quaqua noted in his World Press Freedom Day statement on May 3rd. "Despite this huge progress, the law has effectively been stalled as the regulatory mechanism [Independent Information Commission] to enforce the law is yet to be operationalized."

"We like to again take this time to applaud the Government for its commitment to appoint the Freedom of Information Commissioner. As we anxiously look forward to the appointment of the commissioner, we stand ready to support one who will be more interested in seeing the flow of information from government and public bodies to the public, than one which will be finding excuses for the inability of public functionaries to contribute to expanding the space for transparency, accountability and integrity in Liberian government," the tough-speaking PUL Chief noted.

Mr. Quaqua described the announcement then as "truly great news, when considering the announcement on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, and the contributions both decisions [naming of commissioner and government's accession to the Table Mountain Declaration] are poised to make in providing greater space for the media to operate.

The Table Mountain Declaration obligates African states to decriminalize press offenses, several of which are in Liberian laws.

"While we await the promised action of the Government to accede to the Table Mountain Declaration, we like to note that criminalizing press offenses is a growing cause of international discomfort, which simply holds back opportunities for expressing dissent and engaging governmental authorities to operate in an era of transparency and accountability," said Quaqua, adding, "Until full legislative actions are made towards repealing the distasteful seditious libel and criminal malevolence laws, such laws will continue to threaten whatever claims of freedom of speech we have in Liberia."

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